‘The Kidnapping Club’ Review: The Gotham Slave Trade

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Anyone who has seen the 2013 film “12 Years a Slave”—or read the 1853 Solomon Northup memoir that inspired it—knows that in the decades before the Civil War, free African-Americans could never feel fully at ease in their liberty. At any moment they might be seized and sold away by bounty hunters, with scant hope of regaining their freedom. So it happened that confidence men took Northup in 1841 and shipped him to Louisiana, where he would spend more than a decade in bondage before finally being rescued.

Northup was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., where slavery was still legal and slave auctions operated openly. But as Jonathan Daniel Wells reminds us in “The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War,” the peril extended northward. Mr. Wells makes a significant contribution to the literature of American slavery with a powerful book rooted in similar abductions, across several generations, in New York City. In an often harrowing narrative fueled by solid research, the author describes seizures not only tolerated but encouraged by a cartel of inhumanity protected by a ruling Democratic Party that maintained power by stoking immigrant hatred for blacks.

David Ruggles (center) with fellow abolitionists Isaac T. Hopper (left) and Barney Corse (right).

Photo: The David Ruggles Center for History and Education

According to law, runaway slaves were indeed subject to capture and return—right up to the Civil War—but Mr. Wells shows that the New York episodes were long conducted by an outlaw element within municipal law enforcement, validated by a racist judicial system and encouraged by what he describes as an amoral business community eager to demonstrate its pro-slavery bona fides to Southern customers. If Mr. Wells does not quite prove his indictment against “Wall Street,” he certainly demonstrates that commercial interests ignored these abuses.

Much has been written about Northern acquiescence in Southern slavery. Until now, the scholarship has focused mainly on institutional complicity by banks, insurance companies and shipping concerns that together ballasted the South’s principal export—cotton—even if it meant turning a blind eye to the slave labor that harvested it. Mr. Wells, a history professor who specializes in Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, takes a fresh, bottom-up approach, detailing horrific, unjustified seizures that provoked little objection from Gotham’s establishment. Capitalism had always tolerated captivity, Mr. Wells argues, especially in the South, but there was not only malignant apathy in the North but outright defiance of federal laws that made slavery illegal above the Missouri Compromise line, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade unlawful everywhere.

Photo: WSJ

The Kidnapping Club

By Jonathan Daniel Wells
Bold Type, 354 pages, $30

Mr. Wells offers wrenching case studies from two successive eras. In 1830s Manhattan, runaway slaves were relentlessly hunted down and returned to bondage for a fee. By the 1850s, such seizures took on more official status under the Fugitive Slave Act, “creating confusion and chaos,” Mr. Wells points out, “that only added to the disquiet felt by Black New Yorkers.” The city also tolerated the occasional arrival of slave ships and did little to squash a slave-trading enterprise known as the Portuguese Company, which masterminded the illegal transport of captured Africans to Cuba from a Pearl Street storefront masquerading as a wine importer’s shop.

Mr. Wells describes a vigorous resistance, too. As residents vanished, New York’s abolitionist community—among them free African-Americans whose defiance came at huge personal risk—fought back, advocating security for local blacks and an end to slavery nationwide. The extraordinary character who dominates the early chapters of the book is David Ruggles, who founded the nation’s first black-owned bookstore in what is now Tribeca and led the Committee of Vigilance, which alerted blacks to impending roundups and organized their legal defense. He endured beatings and arrests, defying the relentless human bloodhounds who pursued free African-Americans. It was Ruggles who came up with the “New York Kidnapping Club” sobriquet that Mr. Wells adopted for the title of his book.

Mr. Wells brings the kidnapping gang to life, too: Tobias Boudinot, a renegade police officer who specialized in hunting down blacks for reward money; Fontaine Pettis, an attorney who advertised in Southern newspapers that he would round up runaways for a fee; and Richard Riker, the city recorder (and municipal judge) who dependably and unapologetically ruled against the rights of kidnapped free blacks. As Riker once boasted to a slave-catcher: “Tell your southern citizens that we Northern Judges damn the Abolitionists.”

The individual kidnapping stories retain their ability to shock. Seven-year-old Henry Scott is seized from an African Free School on Duane Street, sending frightened classmates scurrying for their lives. Abraham Gosley is misidentified as an escaped slave named Jesse, yet Riker ignores black witnesses who testify to his true identity and orders him “back” into bondage in Maryland. Hester Jane Carr quits her New York job as a domestic in search of higher pay, then travels to Virginia with a white woman who sells her for $750. Carr contests the betrayal but never regains her freedom, dying in jail at age 21. And in an episode reflecting the complex brutality of the slave system, there is John Lockley. The black family man is awakened one night by a North Carolina plantation owner (with a policeman at his side), who claims Lockley is not only his long-lost slave, but also his cousin, descended from a white relative who had raped a slave. Lockley, too, is ushered out of the city. As Mr. Wells reminds us, for black New Yorkers “a knock on the door in the middle of the night could be deadly.”

These stories are so poignant, the outcomes so monstrous, that they require no narrative flourishes, and Mr. Wells’s workmanlike prose creates an almost clinical mood that perfectly suits what amounts to a grim forensic accounting of both abuse and acquiescence. Mr. Wells persuasively demonstrates that the inhumanity of slavery was neither restricted by geography nor restrained by law. Slavery poisoned all of American culture and exacted a devastating toll on black New Yorkers while members of the original Kidnapping Club lived out their days unmolested.

Mr. Holzer, the director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House, is the author, most recently, of “The Presidents vs. the Press.”

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Appeared in the October 19, 2020, print edition as ‘The Gotham Slave Trade.’